The sound of arrows hitting leather echoed through the clearing.
Silent as falling leaves, Windsong moved high above the ground towards the archer. Skillfully she jumped from branch to branch ever so quietly till she reached the clearing. From her viewpoint she watched for a while.
The brown-haired elf below took another arrow from his nearly empty case on his back, drew the bow, aimed and let go. The arrow missed the crude boar's head that was painted in the middle of the target by a hand's span.
The straw-stuffed leathers were peppered with arrows but only very few actually stuck in the middle. Windsong frowned. Rainpace was not one of the best archers, but he could usually do better. Much better, especially since Willow had healed the old injury in his arm and he got all the strength back necessary for drawing a bow properly.
It was also unusual that he apparently had not noticed Windsong by now. Normally, he would have sensed her two trees ago. The two of them had started a little good-humored competition since Glow's birth when they had begun meeting more often for arrow practice, for playing music together or just for enjoying each other's company. The challenge was whenever they met by chance or appointment they tried to sneak up on each other and get as close as possible. So far Windsong held the lead, but it became more and more difficult to surprise the trapper, who was quite good at stalking, and gave her a hard time because he knew all her tricks by now.
But today, Rainpace seemed distracted and, looking closer, Windsong noticed that his motions were not fluid and his arms not tense enough when he drew the bow. He did not even aim properly.
Windsong stood from her crouched position and balanced as she walked along the branch toward the archer. It was time to finally find out what was going on. While she approached, she saw Raipace pause for a moment and she knew he had finally heard or scented her. When the branch became so thin that it bowed under her weight, she jumped and landed gracefully on the grass.
Halfway between her and the trapper - who continued shooting while she walked over to him — Bristlepelt lay next to a bundle of furs, pretending she was asleep. Windsong's senses had already told her that it was little Glow who was wrapped tightly in those furs. The wolf lifted her head when Windsong approached, looked her up and down, sniffed the air, and slumped its head down on her paws again after judging the elf as no threat. Bending over the little bundle, Windsong saw the cub deeply asleep with her tiny hands clutching Rainpace's hat.
That was another reason why she was spending more time with the cub's parents lately. The huntress was generously offering motherly advice or help whenever needed by Rainpace and Chicory.
Glow and her father were hardly separable the first days following Rainpace's return from one of his word-hunts, so it was only natural he brought his cub to archery practice tonight.
Windsong broke free from Glow's small, cute face and walked over to her unusually-quiet friend who drew the bow with his last arrow. With a Thud! the arrow got stuck at the rim of the leather target.
Both elves stared at the target and the scattered arrows decorating it.
Windsong finally broke the silence. “So we start from scratch again?” she asked dryly.
Rainpace turned toward her and gave her a crooked smile. “Just making sure you do not feel intimidated by my actual shooting skills in case you might reconsider meeting up with me,” he retorted. But the joke was only half-hearted and his smile did not really reach his sad eyes.
Now worrying in earnest, Windsong frowned and gave him a questioning look. Did something happen during the word-hunt? But both Moss and Beetle had been their usual selves when she had seen them earlier. They had been teaching willing listeners the new human words they had learned.
Rainpace started walking toward the target and Windsong followed him. Together, they pulled the arrows out of the leathers and Rainpace took his time before he answered her unspoken question.
“I met Notch and Foxtail at the Thornwall, yesterday when I returned,” the trapper finally started. “They had been waiting for us and were full of questions, as they have so often been lately.”
Windsong listened patiently without interrupting him.
“When all the news was exchanged, they left us and headed to the hot-springs,” he continued. “The springs were one of our, well, of Notch's and my favorite spots... we'd spent a lot of time there — especially when with Foxtail or Willow.” An impish grin bloomed on his face before he got serious again. “And now he did not even ask me to join them.”
Rainpace's voice grew louder while he started pulling out the arrows with more force. “He did not even bother to ask,” the trapper stressed and turned to Windsong, struggling for words to describe what was going on inside of him. “My best friend, who I grew up with! It had always felt like we were two pups of a single litter and with Willow joining in, we felt even more complete. By Wolfsister's fangs, do you remember what mischief the three of us unleashed?” He threw his arms into the air in exasperation.
“Foxtail was another very creative addition to our group and I bet the whole tribe was on guard back then,” Rainpace continued his monologue while Windsong listened. “But bit by bit everything broke apart. True, Notch was quite miffed when I joined the word-hunters and he wasn't allowed to, but he could never be mad at me for long. But after Glow's birth, everything changed for good! He and Foxtail do not include me in... whatever it is they are doing nowadays because... I don't know.” Rainpace stopped his ranting to draw a deep breath, probably feeling that he was exaggerating.
Windsong could not remember anything strange or awkward between Notch and Rainpace when she saw them together last time. But it was true that Notch spent less time with his old childhood friend than before.
While putting the arrows back into his case, Rainpace continued, now more quietly and with a sad undertone. “It's just that he seems to be glued to Foxtail nowadays with Willow and me being left out. Sometimes I have the feeling he treats me differently because of Glow. It was the same with Foxtail at the beginning, but she overcame it quickly. I guess that's why I've seen her more often than Notch during the last turns. But I don't understand! As if having a cub would have changed me so much that he can't deal with me the same way as he did before.”
Windsong's eyebrows rose at those words, but Rainpace was totally blind to her disbelieving reaction.
They walked back in silence, Rainpace brooding and Windsong watching him from the corner of her eyes.
“Would you have joined them, then?” she asked when they had reached shooting distance again and Windsong had taken her position.
“Huh?” Rainpace was startled out of his thoughts.
Without haste, Windsong took her bow from her shoulder and an arrow from the quiver at her hip. She drew, aimed and repeated her question in a casual tone while holding the bowstring tense. “Yesterday, if Notch and Foxtail had asked you to join in, would you have gone with them?”
“Well...” Rainpace started but stopped, a frown creeping onto his face.
Windsong let go of the arrow and hit the boar-target in the middle of its eye.
Blushing lightly, Rainpace answered reluctantly: “No, probably not. I wanted to see Glow and Chicory first... and Windburn was waiting for a report and...” He looked away.
Windsong felt guilty. She did not want him to feel embarrassed, but it wasn't in her nature to consider only one side of a leaf.
She stepped closer to him and turned his head so she could look into his eyes again. A half-scowl had formed on Rainpace's face by now. “Oh, please don't give me that look! You know I am on your side!” she said. “It's just, you can be so blind sometimes!”
His scowling intensified.
“Come on,” Windsong continued quickly. “Look at you! Since you became part of the word-hunt, and especially after Glow's birth, you've changed so much — and I don't mean your appearance. Sometimes I am under the impression you even walk straighter. Can't you see that?” She paused to search his face for any signs of realization or agreement. “You've changed,” she repeated making sure she drove the point home. “And some would even say for the better.”
Rainpace raised an eyebrow. “Some would, eh?”
“Well, I know of at least one elf, for sure,” she admitted, and was relieved to see him cracking a smile at last. Encouraged, she explained, “And even Notch must have noticed that. While you have become a word-hunter and a father, nothing has changed in his life. He is still free as a bird to do whatever he wants, while you have responsibilities towards your family and the tribe. Your priorities are different than Notch's now… and sadly, it seems they are not compatible.”
The smile had vanished from her friend's face. Windsong wished she could have said something more comforting instead of the truth he had most likely already known and denied.
Rainpace's head sunk down and rested on her brow. “Yes, too sad,” he whispered and even more quietly, he added, “I miss that arrogant, unpredictable sly fox...”
Those words did not need any response. The two friends just stood close for awhile in silence, with Rainpace lost in memories and Windsong offering solace by just being there.
After a little while they heard a whimpering that grew constantly louder. Apparently Glow had awakened and did not like being alone, or — considering the faint smell that was blown to them by a light breeze — maybe she just needed a new diaper. Even Bristlepelt stood and stalked away, her nose offended.
Rainpace lifted his head in no hurry and looked down at Windsong, while his usual smile crept back onto his face. “Had anyone ever told you that you're way too wise for your age?” he asked her.
Windsong played along and said in exaggerated modesty, “Well, I can remember Suddendusk mentioning it once or twice.”
Both of them grinned.
Then, Rainpace bent down and gave her a gentle kiss on the forehead. “Thank you,” he whispered and turned away. He walked over to the wriggling bundle on the ground that contained his beloved daughter to finally take care of one of his new duties.